Book review: Nancy Business by R. W. R. McDonald

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Book Publishers)

Grief does not have an expiry date.

Oh, there are many who thinks that’s exactly what it has, a fixed moment in time which, when reached, magically dissolves all the pain, trauma and loss of having to say goodbye to someone infinitely special, taking with it the complex and unpredictable interweaving of emotions that sees you happy one second and a burbling mess the next.

Nor, it is safe to say, is it neat and tidy, expressing itself in compact and exquisitely well-ordered fashion, a tumbling tsunami of emotions all lined up, serving number clutched hopefully in hand, ready to politely and with the utmost decorum and respect, let the world know that what is happened is wrong, unfair and deeply, irrevocably sad.

But why are we even discussing what grief is and is not in a review of a book that comes with a bright orange, inherently playful cover, a title that comes inbuilt with a mischievous wink and a nod and explosive emojis that suggest a colourfully-rendered cartoon-like explosiveness?

Simply because Nancys Business, the second novel by R. W. R. McDonald, the writer who gave us the hilariously but meaningfully-layered delights of the highly-awarded The Nancys (it more than deservedly won the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel), has brilliantly managed with wit, wisdom and incisive thoughtfulness to serve up a novel that is as much a homage to the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene as it is a highly-affecting and oft times searingly honest exploration of grief.

“I sprinted towards Main Street, dodging chunks of debris on the footpath. Behind me Uncle Pike and Devon yelled my name, but I wasn’t stopping. I made it to the steps of the Bully on the corner before Devon overtook me. He spun and grabbed my arm, pulling me off the road as an ambulance sped past towards the blast, its wailing siren mashing-up with the sounds of other emergency vehicles in the distance.” (P. 26)

If you recall, The Nancys saw young Tippy Chan and her irreverently flamboyant guncles (gay uncles) Pike and Devon get their fabulous amateur detective on, with the deeply engaging events of the novel taking place in the months after the tween has had to deal with the death of her father in a car accident, an event so catastrophically sudden and destructively wrenching for her and her nurse mother Lennie (Pike’s sister) that their once idyllic life in the small town of Riverstone, New Zealand is never the same again.

For all of the gorgeous nostalgic fun of massive Nancy Drew fans going full Miss Marple and doing it with style, grace and matching T-shirts, The Nancys unflinchingly examined what it is like to face the death of a close loved one and how, despite our best efforts, the attendant grief that comes with their passing seems to resist any and all attempts at obvious banishment.

Nancy Business, an inspired title which once again nods its famously clever head to both Ms. Drew’s adventures and the reclamation of a pejorative name for gay men with which this reviewer is far too well acquainted thanks to persistent childhood bullies, continues this empathetic look at the pain and loss of grief but also, rather hopefully, what can happen when you inadvertently begin healing by the most unexpected of means.

But it goes one impressively step further this time around.

McDonald’s happily engaging, expertly layered second novel goes in deep and hard on the fact that while there is a spirited debate to be had about stand-up vs. sit-down meetings (the latter if you please, and we do), and that Nancy Drew was a whole lot darker and weirder than we give it credit for, the more important discussion that needs to be had is what do you do when you reach the anniversary of your loved one’s death, in this case Tippy’s much-loved and greatly-missed dad, and the gnawing sense of loss still seems to be present in highly uncomfortable quantities?

R. W. R. McDonald (image courtesy official author site)

Well, you dive into another mystery of course.

It’s not necessarily what the grief doctor ordered as Lennie, Tippy and Pike and Devon, who are not as happily coupled as they once were, mark the one-year since their cosily domestic world, admittedly in a town Pike hates and raced to Sydney as a youth to get far away from, but it arrives just as everyone (bar Lennie) needs it.

It is, like many things in Nancy Business not as lightly fun as you think it might be but that is wholly a good thing in a novel that shades in light, dark, charm and emotional truthfulness in compellingly wonderful amounts, allowing you to watch on with glee and hand-clapping excitement as Tippy, Pike and Devon set out to solve the mystery of who bombed and destroyed Riverstone’s town hall and much of its downtown district and killed three people in the process (with the frightening possibility of more to come) while also soberly witnessing the effect that death can have on lives that felt giddily light and endlessly possible until its arrival.

It’s a consummately well-executed blend of the bleak and the blithe, the deadly serious (quite literally as it turns out) and the designer fabulous, and it is never less than inherently meaningful and thoughtfully insightful in a book that manifestly deserves its riotously bold and orange cover, explosive emoji and all but which holds your heart, grabs your hand and sits with you as tears roll down your, or rather Tippy, Pike, Lennie and Devon’s faces.

“He nodded and I hit play. We sat in silence and watched as the police car sped off the bridge in the direction of the town hall, its lights flashing. It turned the corner and disappeared. Less than a minute later the screen flashed white with the explosion.

Devon sat still and said quietly, ‘ can still smell the smoke.’

Then we both started crying.” (P. 216)

It’s that captivatingly good blend of adventurous fun, witty word play and boldly honest humanity that elevates Nancy Business far beyond being a nostalgia-inspired piece of playful sleuth-heavy storytelling (it is that, by the way, and it is gloriously good at being that but that is, happily, not all it is).

Very much in keeping with the Scandinavian idea of bright and light packaging with a darkly knowing inner core (think many of ABBA’s songs as just one example), Nancy Business is in the mystery solving game, not just to have some deliciously camp fun, but to look death and grief in the eye and say we know what you are like and we are prepared to live with you if that’s what it takes to find our way to life again.

It is so richly rewarding to read a novel that gets what grief is, really gets it, and knows that while therapy and introspection in this space is vitally important, it is not the only way that people come to terms with tremendous loss.

In fact, as Tippy discovers when all kinds of secrets come to the surface causing her to wonder if her entire life is one big cruel, carefully concealed lie, it’s when you get back to living life while investigating death’s quite serious ramifications (and remembering to take photos of all your clue mapping out; oh wait, you didn’t? Oops) that healing kind of happens, somewhat accidentally, in the places in-between.

The heart-happy, queer-rich delight of Nancy Business is that it knows life can be devastatingly sad and that grief doesn’t magically disappear through sheer will or the passage of time (and that was once good may not ever be so good again); it knows deep in its storytelling DNA that life has a mischievously fun way of defying the very worst of things and making them better but only after all kinds of risks have been taken, darkly challenging things faced, and debates had, and yes, this is very serious, on whether asparagus is even a colour.

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